... here are some personal recommendations. Because it only describes each calligraphy book I've got on the shelf, this list might look a bit eccentric. But it only includes texts I actually use, know and love, so there are no bad reviews.
You'll see that I've sorted the titles by broad subject area. But some of them do cross topics so it's worth browsing through the list.
Calligraphy book index
The links go to Amazon.com. If you buy a calligraphy book, I may get some cents or pence. (It's become clear that the hand-calligraphed Lear jet is going to remain a dream, but every little still helps.) UK visitors: I am working on how to include separate Amazon UK entries.
As time has gone on, your average common-or-garden calligraphy book has evolved to offer many more step-by-step illustrations for each calligraphy alphabet, and less explanation of the underlying principles – so this longest section of the bibliography concentrates on modern, practical and (dare I say it) usually not too dry-and-philosophical works: my useful calligraphy books :-)
Drogin, Marc, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique
(New York and London, 1980) This is simply a great calligraphy book. Drogin takes the historical alphabets which Brown and Knight analyse academically (see below), and breaks them down into simple steps for the calligrapher (on graph paper so you can see the proportions). He includes many unusual medieval scripts which you just won't find elsewhere, including Celtic (early insular) hands, two forms of uncial, Carolingian roundhand, three varieties of gothic, and several more -- the whole alphabet each time, with each nib movement described. NB this calligraphy book is strictly medieval: so, no italic, copperplate or Foundational hand. But Drogin explains useful fiddly bits, like how to use the corner of the nib; he also supplies photographs of original manuscripts for each script; and transcribes the texts; AND his introduction contains everything you need in order to become curious and excited about historical handwriting. Obtain this book. Seriously. You'll love it. Then, if you change your mind, send it to me. I've worn mine ragged.
PS. I notice in Amazon.com that Drogin has another book listed -- Calligraphy of the Middle Ages and How to Do It. It's got good reviews as an 'older child's version' of Medieval Calligraphy. If anyone's used it or owns a copy of this calligraphy book, please let me know a few details of what it's like and whether I should obtain it ... here's my contact page.
Furber, Alan, Layout and Design for Calligraphers
(London, 1985) Still available as yet another 1990s reprint of a good earlier work. The back boasts that, "There is no other work to which the calligraphy can refer for specific layout and design advice relating to calligraphy." Well, actually, many other works listed here do say something useful about layout and design, but they don't devote themselves entirely to the topic. The great strength of this calligraphy book is that the examples are large, and detailed; and, helpfully, Furber offers 'wrong' examples as well as right ones, so you can compare the effects of different layouts and designs. If you're planning to use your calligraphy for cards, posters, greetings, poems, scrapbook page layouts etc, then this is a useful calligraphy book which you will refer to happily and frequently.
Harris, David, The Calligrapher's Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them
(London, 2003) This is a slightly frustrating but nevertheless very useful calligraphy book. It's extremely helpful in containing so many ancient and modern calligraphy alphabets so clearly laid out, but it's irritatingly brief when it comes to actual instruction; it has useful ring-bound pages so you can keep it open on your desk while working from it, but the instructions are in such small type that it's impossible to read them at a distance of more than 18 inches. That said, I don't know any other calligraphy book that shows you how to write medieval secretary hand, let alone one which also offers a modern alternative for easier reading. There are around seventeen Gothic alphabets alone. It has a very useful illustrated index of the different scripts at the beginning, and ... despite its shortcomings, I wouldn't be without it. I just wish it were bigger, and a bit longer.
Jarman, Christopher, The Osmiroid Book of Calligraphy
(Gosport, 1983) Goodness knows whether you can get this book still, even second-hand. It's a little gem of a calligraphy manual (and the scripts work even with non-Osmiroid nibs ...) Jarman is a great calligrapher himself, and he knowledgably encourages amateurs to "strike out and enjoy the almost sensual experience of pen and ink ... This book has been aimed at those who need encouragement to express themselves, within the discipline of the craft, but without the haunting anxiety that they may have somehow got it wrong." Half the book is devoted to scripts (uncial, roundhand, gothic, italic, etc), half to beautiful and highly enjoyable calligraphic 'doodles' in the form of playful strokes, patterns and ornaments to inspire fresh creative thought. If you find a copy, snap it up.
Mehigan, Janet, and Mary Noble, The Encyclopedia of Calligraphy and Illumination (Tunbridge Wells, 2005). Published in the US, apparently, as The Encyclopedia of Calligraphy and Illuminated Letters.
This particular calligraphy book is much more a solid general reference for basic, practical techniques than it is a theoretical guide to the subject, so I've listed it here in the 'how-tos' section instead. Mehigan and Noble cover the fundamentals of forming letters for all the usual calligraphy alphabets, along with historical scripts, decorated letters, gilding, using texture and modern materials, borders etc. They also provides lot of ideas for further work, and very useful source material. This calligraphy book contains an abundance of useful step-by-step illustrations and photographs, and luscious examples of contemporary calligraphic work in both traditional and modern styles. To be honest, looking at it again, I can't find a word to say against it.
Mary Noble and Janet Mehigan are each, separately, responsible for one other practical general calligraphy book: The Encyclopedia of Colour Calligraphy
and The Practical Encyclopedia of Calligraphy
Judging by the joint Noble & Mehigan effort which I own, these other two calligraphy books are also worth looking out for.
Reynolds, Lloyd J., Italic Calligraphy and Handwriting: Exercises and Text
(New York, 1969)
You say, "1969? A bit old, isn't it?" Yes, but consider that it's gone through 34 printings. Like the shark, Reynolds must have found a perfect evolutionary niche early on and then stuck to it: no rows of teeth, I hasten to add, but a very helpful little italic calligraphy book which also deals with italic handwriting. It's written in a slightly stiff and almost comically schoolmarmy manner ... "Do not hurry at the beginning. Understand what you are doing, or you are only wasting time. Study the model thoroughly before you write a letter ..."
etc. But get over Reynolds' bossy style, do the exercises as instructed and you will see your italic calligraphy and everyday handwriting improve dramatically, as I did.
Studley, Vance, Left-Handed Calligraphy
(New York, 1991) Actually, this dates originally from 1979. Vance – may I call him Vance? – such a name – writes so engagingly in this calligraphy book for left-handers (or 'sinistrals', as he also calls them, like something ueber-cool out of Twilight) that it repays reading by right-handers ('dextrals'?) too. As he rightly says, "Once the left-hander is no longer considered to be a 'right-handed writer in reverse,' then a technique can be given that is suitable for his [or her!] express needs." Vance explains well and clearly what a left-hander can do in terms of materials, setting up, stance and hand position, and goes on helpfully to cover uncials, Foundation hand, formal italic and a running version of italic which he refers to as 'Chancery cursive'.
Thomson, George L., The Art of Calligraphy: How to Master Broad Pen Scripts (London, 1986) First published in 1985 as The Calligraphy Workbook: How to Master Broad Pen Script which is now the only one I can find listed.
This is a tremendously comforting calligraphy book. It contains nothing much but 'four easy scripts' – uncial, roundhand, blackletter (gothic) and italic – and instructions on how to make your own pen. Its beauty is the sheer size of the examples Thomson provides. They are huge: a good two-to-five inches high and laid out mid-page between lines so they are easily traceable. Every stroke is clearly visible and you really can use your whole hand and arm to write with at that scale, which, funnily enough, then makes it easier to write smaller. If you ever feel faintly cramped by little exemplars, this particular calligraphy book is the solution. Oh, and it's ring-bound, so it stays open and flat exactly where you want it.
Trudgill, Anne, Traditional Penmanship (Lettering Workbooks 2)
(London, 1989) A small but highly concentrated and effective guide to writing a whole variety of traditional broad-nibbed scripts, from Roman to roundhand, including a few less common calligraphy alphabets such as Carolingian roundhand, Lombardic versals and rotunda gothic. Very, very clear. Nice, brief, informative sections on materials, history of writing, basic techniques, design and decoration etc. Highly recommended: still a 'top-ten' practical calligraphy book which I use every time I teach as well as for my own reference.
Winters, Eleanor, Mastering Copperplate: A Step-by-Step Manual for Calligraphers (New York, 1989) (Also known as Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy, a Step-by-Step Manual
Truth be told, this is my mum's copy, but until she actually notices it's missing from her shelf ... Winters' is a practical calligraphy book par excellence: big, bold, detailed, precise, orderly and effective. Softback, too. Copperplate is not an easy script, especially for a gothic fan like me, but after a few weeks of dipping casually into this book in the evenings, I had gone from frankly lousy to 'fancy envelope addresses' and had also produced a most acceptable birthday present. Winters' examples are large and clear; she provides step-by-step training in the different strokes of copperplate, before going on to the letters of the alphabet in order of difficulty; she provides illustrations of how letters can go wrong, and explains how to correct them; and she offers her expertise lightly, with the kindly wisdom of long experience.
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Any general calligraphy book will usually cover some of these topics too; but the following offer more specialised knowledge in 'calligraphy-related skills'.
Alexander, Jonathan J. G., Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven and London, 1992) An absolutely fascinating exploration of the evidence for how texts were illuminated and decorated during the Middle Ages. There are lots of fine coloured illustrations and examples, from half-finished page decorations showing the order of work to illuminated initials showing tradesmen selling sheepskins for turning into the original gothic calligraphy book. The text is perhaps a little formal for bed-time reading, but it is written by a most respected scholar in the field and is hugely informative and authoritative about everything from medieval treatises on pigments to the regulation of the Parisian book trade by the early University ... to be candid, I originally bought it for the pictures, as a 'manuscript'-type book, but it's now been promoted to a proper calligraphy book and I wouldn't let go of it for its weight in Kendal Mint Cake.
Alexander, J. G., The Decorated Letter (New York, 1978) Yes, I know, 1978: a 'too old' calligraphy book? But I bought it because I do not argue with 40 full-colour plates plus commentaries and a useful introduction for £5.10. (I just found the second-hand-bookshop receipt marking a page.) In this early work, Alexander concentrates on the methods and history of medieval decorated letters, rather than the scripts of the main text. It makes for an interesting read, and provides lots of ideas about how to ornament your calligraphy with a splash of historical colour and design. The only thing conspicuously missing is a proper example of Renaissance white-vine decoration. But I have other books for that, listed below. *grin*
(If you do get this book, don't miss the tiny Wallace-and-Gromit-style monkey on p. 20 -- middle of the bottom lobe of the 'B'.)
Seligman, Patricia, with calligraphy by Timothy Noad, The Art of Illuminated Letters: A Practical Guide for Calligraphers
(London, 1994) Just what it says, and a very good example of it too. This calligraphy book divides into two sections: (1) history, material, techniques; and (2) twelve projects under the general headings Celtic, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Modern Revival. These are cleverly devised and bewitching to view -- I challenge you to look at their Book of Hours project (pp. 102-105) and not feel the urge to start making your own straightaway. Seligman and Noad include plentiful historical examples in their 'gallery' pages, along with step-by-step photos for everything from Celtic capitals to imperial ornament and Arts and Crafts monograms. And there are useful tips on every project page. Five (gilded, burnished) stars.
Whitley, Kathleen P., The Gilded Page: The History and Technique of Manuscript Gilding (Delaware and London, 2000) This is a calligraphy book or rather calligraphy-skills book which I paid full price for without even thinking about it; it was the picture on the front cover of a blissfully triumphant medieval nun upholding quill and book against an immaculately gilded 'P' that did it. The illustrations inside, sadly, are all black-and-white but the text more than makes up for it. If there is anything you seriously wish to know about gilding or chrysography (writing in gold) which you can't find referred to in this excellent 'para-calligraphy' book, then I will personally eat a whole leaf of gold on camera and upload the video to Youtube with a public apology on Kathleen's behalf.
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Bain, Iain, Celtic Knotwork (London, 1986) The clearer, more detailed explanation of exactly how to work with the methods researched and devised by Iain Bain's father, George Bain. Many a newer Celtic ornament-and-calligraphy book has appeared since the 1980s, including the series by Meehan – but Iain Bain's is still useful for working out how to fill panels and irregular shapes, based as it is on principles which can be adapted to different circumstances on the page. Bain's illustrations are admirably clear – all his examples are taken from Celtic manuscripts and monuments so far as I can see – and the geometry doesn't seem too daunting on closer examination. In short, this is one calligraphy book which I am currently determined to work through from beginning to end in order to gain an intuitive grasp of Celtic knotwork -- whereas Meehan's are the books I refer to if I want an instant result for one particular design.
PS Although I don't have it myself (yet), I've recently been recommended Sheila Sturrock's Celtic Knotwork Designs
as being an excellent guide, easy to learn from using graph paper.
Mackinder, Jack, Celtic Design and Ornament for Calligraphers (London, 1999) As I say elsewhere on the site, this calligraphy book is so useful because it points out the important distinction between ornamental techniques (for decoration of individual elements within a page) and the simple but effective methods used for laying out the overall design. MacKinder devotes many pages of diagrams and instructions to the latter, with reference to the original manuscripts. It turns out that traditional 'Celtic' pages of carpet-patterns and panels of interlace are not as mysteriously complicated to produce as they may appear; and MacKinder also supplies instructions for creating step- and key-patterns as well as knotwork. Probably doesn't contain everything you will want to know, but 337 illustrations are not to be sneezed at, and, moreover, although it's big it's a softback, and so hopefully not terribly expensive.
Meehan, Aidan, Celtic Design:Illuminated Letters (London, 1992) Meehan has become well known for his practical, step-by-step guides to all aspects of Celtic art and ornament. His Illuminated Letters is a very nice addition to the series, and is particularly good as a calligraphy book (in my opinion) because it also goes into some detail about exactly how to construct an illuminated page in the Celtic tradition. But the meat of this book consists of the many, many examples of wildly decorative letters from the manuscripts of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, among others. Meehan has conveniently translated these into plain black-and-white designs for easier copying, colouring, adaptation and (within reasonable bounds) general creative licence.
Meehan, Aidan, Spiral Patterns (London, 1993) The two- or three-armed spiral is a fundamental element in Celtic design and an absolute pain to try to draw freehand. So this is an extremely useful calligraphy book to refer to if you have ever struggled like me to create a balanced Celtic spiral, or even if you merely suspect that you may someday want to draw any sort of spiral pattern for artistic purposes. Meehan gives lots of reassuringly straightforward examples of how to construct differently proportioned spirals, using squared paper or measured dimensions. He includes several stunning Celtic swirling patterns derived from interlocking spirals and curves. It's therefore also a good book to have on hand if you want fresh ideas for border designs or decorative motifs in general.
Meehan, Aidan, The Celtic Design Book (London, 2007) This fat little softback actually comprises three of the Celtic Design series bound into one volume. They're all available separately too: A Beginner's Manual,
Knotwork: The Secret Method of the Scribes
and Illuminated Letters
(the latter calligraphy book is also pictured further up this bibliography). They are all helpful references, but the main one to pay attention to here is probably Knotwork. In it, Meehan outlines his own method for creating Celtic knots which (he writes) is probably the way the original Irish monks did it. The technique differs from those described by Bain father and son and Mackinder, but it is equally practical and useful for filling letters, borders, cross patterns etc. Meehan shows how to create knots and plaits, how to construct a panel using traditional geometry and calculations, and how to introduce breaks in the pattern for decorative Celtic crosses, carpet-page designs etc. Knot lightly to be dismissed.
Meehan, Aidan, The Dragon and the Griffin: The Viking Impact (London, 1995) Yet another in Meehan's extremely popular Celtic Design series, and I haven't even listed all of them -- just the ones I couldn't resist. In this volume, Meehan explores and explains the dramatic animal art (zoomorphic design) of the ninth century. You know: those stern-looking eaglets with their wing-feathers interwined through their own necks, and the odd quadrupeds with interlocking legs -- they are all represented here along with ideas for how to reproduce and use them in your own decorative Celtic artwork. As usual in Meehan's books, the text is all written out in friendly calligraphic roundhand, in between plenty of authentic and original designs for copying and adaptation.
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Child, Heather, ed., The Calligrapher's Handbook (London, 1985) This is a calligraphy book of which all calligraphers say, "Oh, you just have to have it!" and when you get it you don't use it for six months. Then, you sit down to read one of the daunting-looking articles and emerge an hour later full of astonished revelation and creative vim, not to mention loads of technical know-how which, even if you don't employ it straightaway, is invaluable for dinner-party chit-chat and general contemplation. This is a serious calligraphy book: it includes a diagram showing how to grind your own pigments using an agate muller in a china well. It suggests methods by which you might get a crease out of calfskin before writing on it. It encourages you to spend four weeks slaking plaster by stirring it in buckets of water to make your own gesso for raised gilding. There is just no arguing with such a text.
Hewitt, Graily, Lettering for Students and Craftspeople
(New York and London, 1993) Originally published in 1930, this is a landmark calligraphy book with (as the cover proudly boasts) 403 illustrations. Hewitt was a student of the inestimably great Edward Johnston and takes the master's work further. The illustrations are in fact very useful, especially for details like cutting quills, and Hewitt's style is delicious: for example, "As simplicity is desirable for clarity's sake, so is it obviously helpful towards speed," or, "Hurried writing has always been bad, from the Roman cursive onwards ... We do not teach a child to read and then estimate the 'goodness' of his reading by the pace at which he can gabble." Oh! Priceless prose. I will stop there, though.
Johnston, Edward, Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering (London, 1994) First published in 1904, this was the calligraphy book which reintroduced the Western world to broad-nibbed scripts, ie everything except copperplate. Johnston had to reinvent methods from the original manuscripts because they had been forgotten; and he devised the Foundation hand, which is a mainstay of calligraphy to this day. The book remains in its own right an excellent reference with detailed analyses of letter-forms, layout, use of colour and ornament etc. Not for the faint-hearted who want minimal verbiage: Johnston explains everything in careful detail. "To choose or construct beautiful forms requires good taste, and that in its turn requires cultivation, which comes from the observation of beautiful forms. Those who are not accustomed to seeing beautiful things are, in consequence, often uncertain whether they think a thing beautiful or not." Any questions?
Lovett, Patricia, Tools and Materials for Calligraphy, Illumination and Miniature Painting
(London, 1996) A lovely and infinitely practical calligraphy book crammed with specialised knowledge that warms the heart just to read about: how to treat egg-yolk for mixing your own tempera paints, the difference between Armenian bole and dragon's blood, how to cut up a whole animal skin to make best use of it for writing and illuminating, what to do with ox gall, cuttlefish powder and the aromatic resins of Arabia – along with wonderful words like glair, schlag, muller and khadi. Here's a seductive sample of Lovett's art: "To make your own ink collect 80gm of oak galls. Wrap them in layers of newspaper and smash them into chunks with a hammer on a hard surface outside ... Now cover the crushed galls with rainwater and leave to sit in the sun," etc. Fantastic stuff.
Lynsky, Marie, Complete Calligraphy (Leicester, 2006) This is a good general overview of calligraphy techniques and scripts, with two conspicuous virtues: huge illustrations and photographs, and an abundance of very pleasing ideas and practical guidance for projects which are easily adapted to your own preferences. Lynsky's own work, which naturally enough features throughout this calligraphy book, is utterly gorgeous. I was particularly taken by her recipe for Rock Buns written out in gothic, but what sold me the book was her adaptation of illuminated letters and layout from the Winchester Bible alongside 'how to make your own poster pens' and a project for a Celtic greeting card. The woman has everything.
NB I couldn't find Lynsky on either Amazon site.
Wilson, Diana Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Calligraphy Techniques (London, 1992) Already reprinted several times, this is a very helpful guide to the whole field. Chockablock with lovely illustrations of calligraphy from all periods but particularly strong on modern examples. Part 1 lists techniques, such as Colour, Foundational Hand, Borders, Layout; while Part 2 lists themes, such as Quotes and Poems, Words, Printed Books and Experimental Calligraphy. It's not a huge volume, so it doesn't cover everything in elaborate detail, but it's astonishingly informative for its size. Wilson, as the expert guide, both reassures and inspires: "As your understanding of letter construction develops, you can explore a seemingly limitless world still composed on only twenty-six letters. In doing so you can find an individual style and expertise comparable to that of any other artist." Yes, yes, yes!
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Otherwise known as the 'My Precioussss' section. Perhaps you might argue that a tome of gorgeous facsimile manuscript pages is not strictly 'a calligraphy book'. Such arguments are moot because these are all books for which one might well sell a close relative or part thereof. Still, 'new and used' has saved me a few hard choices between rent and food, so for goodness' sake check the second-hand section
of your chosen book outlet before taking out a new mortgage or signing the sulphurous scroll proffered by the fiery-skinned chap with the horns and goatee.
Alexander, Jonathan J. G., ed, The Painted Page: Italian Renaissance Book Illumination 1450-1550
(London and New York, 1995) This is an exhibition catalogue which is also a superb survey of its subject matter and a fine calligrapher's source-book. It contains dozens and dozens of examples of humanistic roundhand for a start, along with many painted classical Roman majuscules and formal page layouts. Much as I love the Middle Ages it is a huge relief too to step out into the wide spaces and easy legibility of the Renaissance manuscript ... not forgetting their curious trompe-l'oeil humour and a few mysterious corners of astrology, alchemy and mysticism. Oh, and this book also contains more exemplars for white-vine decoration than you can shake a brown stick at.
Backhouse, Janet, The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting (London, 1997) It does exactly what it says on the tin. One thousand years of manuscripts ordered, described and thoroughly illustrated. By 'thoroughly' I mean that Backhouse, by contrast with De Hamel or Alexander, doesn't bother writing too much about the history and development of manuscript illustration. She simply says what, where, when, who, how – so nearly every page boasts two or three colour plates with just a few friendly short paragraphs of hard information, clearly laid out, underneath. Meanwhile the necessary-but-boring historical information is restricted to a few easy pages at the beginning of each section. If you were only going to own one Preciousssss manuscript-illumination-calligraphy book then this would be a good choice. I paid full price but by now hopefully there are enough second-hand copies so you don't need to.
Backhouse, Janet, The Lindisfarne Gospels (Oxford, 1981) There may well be more up-to-date facsimile volumes of the Lindisfarne Gospels but this volume does perfectly well as a calligraphy book and general reference for both the immaculate script and the astonishing page decoration. Like the Book of Kells, this is something you need to have access to if you are interested at all in Celtic calligraphy and design, if only to see what the original art looked like. Too many artists now reproduce the designs meticulously, then ruin them with harsh colour straight out of the tube. Use the facsimile pages to get a better idea of the soft, bright, organic pigments which so characterise authentic Celtic art.
Blake, William, The Complete Illuminated Books (London, 2000) Yes, the William Blake also hand-wrote, printed and illustrated/illuminated his own poetic works from his apparently endlessly fertile symbolic imagination. Muscular, lyrical, forceful and expressive, the illustrations sing out from every page and of course you get the poetry too, printed by Blake in colour in a handsome italic. The best thing about this as a calligraphy book (rather than high literature) is that it shows how a poetic maverick who saw visions on Hampstead Heath went about laying out and decorating huge quantities of his own verse, so it provides endless silent advice and inspiration for your own creative projects. I would just like to quote one line on p. 113 from 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' which seems particularly apt for book-buyers: "He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence."
Bovey, Alixe, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (London, 2002) This is one of a very successful and brilliant series of themed books by the British Museum. It's also small, softback and affordable (surprise!). The monsters within include just about everything from one-footed sciopods and people with silly long drapey ears to dragons, unicorns, gryphons and demons with impractically long fingernails. My favourite, however, is the apocalyptic plague of human-headed locusts descending at speed on page 28, watched disapprovingly by a blonde crowned head on what looks like a sheep's body with a fine pair of white bat-wings. What did the illustrators drink in those days? Whatever it was, I doubt it's still legal.
Brown, Michelle P., Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts
(London, 1991) Another British Library production. This, while not a calligraphy book per se, is lovely to look at, easy to read and useful to the medievalist calligrapher because it includes reproductions from several of the less spectacular, more typical Anglo-Saxon manuscripts as well as the fabulous and celebrated. From the early, Celtic manuscripts right through to the Norman Conquest there are photographs and illustrations to bring these early medieval books alive. The plainer texts display various forms of insular and Carolingian minuscule which Michelle P. Brown, like the good palaeographer that she is, analyses authoritatively. She also gives a short but useful list of further reading at the end. If the Anglo-Saxon period interests you even remotely, this is a cheerful and colourful little book to have on hand, written by a leading expert.
Brown, Michelle P., Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (London, 1994) Published in collaboration with the John Paul Getty Museum ... yes, it's Michelle again. She is a genius, after all. Every term to do with illuminated manuscripts which you could possibly need to know is in here, along with plenty of terms that you didn't even know that you need to know, and several that you just don't need. Chemise binding, girdle book, alum tawing, plummet, pounce ... they may not be what you think, but they are very interesting. The book is also thoroughly illustrated with photographs and examples from the original manuscripts; the front cover shows a monkey playing the bagpipes among green pumpkins growing from a pea-flower. Love it.
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1986) An excellent illustration of the calligraphy-book-buyer's rule that the simpler and more general the title, the more important (and expensive) the book is likely to be. This is another one I paid full price for but oh, it was so worth it. It's huge, heavy, hardback, and intriguingly laid out by theme as well as period from the 7th to the 16th century: so chapters deal with, for example, 'Books for Missionaries', 'Books for Emperors', 'Books for Students' and so forth. Many, many full-page colour illustrations and the sort of information you just don't find in other books: "The owner of a Book of Hours was meant to stop eight times a day and read the appropriate text, probably speaking it quietly under the breath"; or, even more engagingly, "In fact, a modern popular newspaper is a good example of a thoroughly accessible text and uses very many of the devices of a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript." Easily, freshly written, with a great index, and full of new ways of seeing the written page and the book. And probably jolly expensive. You have been warned.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, tr. Victoria Benedict (London, 1969) My own hardback, boxed Très Riches Heures is a reprint from 1973 and the gold on it is much shinier and more convincing than the rather soft metallic finish in the softback edition. Having said that, the cost of the hardback boxed still makes me wince to recall it some thirteen years later, and that was second-hand. So the book in the image to the left there is the softback. Either way, it's one of the most satisfactory facsimile volumes one can own whether as a calligraphy book or for sheer bibliophily. It marks a high spot in the High Middle Ages; it was the result of commission by an aristocratic French bibliophile; its illuminators, the three Limbourg Brothers, were creators of the highest order; the calendar pages alone include some of the most famous medieval images in the world; it's fairly dripping with gold, lapis lazuli and immaculate gothic quadrata script; and, to be brief, the whole thing is a continuous work of art from glorious folio recto to glorious folio verso. Oh, did I mention that it includes a fine historical introduction, and that a helpful commentary accompanies each plate? (PS Don't miss the collared leopards nonchalantly washing their paws in 'The Adoration of the Magi' (pl. 49) and the astonishing bare legs of the tumbled angels in 'The Fall of the Rebel Angels' (pl. 65). Oh, and do just look at 'Christ in Gethsemane' (pl. 107) for sheer technical bravura. Bother, I have run out of space.)
Meehan, Bernard, The Book of Kells (London, 1994) As you can imagine, I could go on for hours about how necessary and influential is the Book of Kells, and rave about its forceful abstract forms, dynamic layout, harmonious colouring, awe-inspiring detail, iconic motifs ... But you probably already know, so I will just say a few words instead about this calligraphy book from 'the other Meehan'. It's helpful, inexpensive, contains over 100 colour illustrations from one of the best-loved, best-known and most imitated manuscripts in the world, is an excellent accompaniment to any of the works on Celtic ornament, and a pleasure to have around in its own right. Who would be without it? -- or a close approximation of it?
Panayotova, Stella, The Macclesfield Psalter: With A Complete Reproduction at the Original Size of this 14th-Century Prayer Book, etc (London, 2008) For anyone who thinks the literate Middle Ages might lack somewhat in humour, this will be a revelation. From the man falling over in terror of a giant flatfish to the cute little batwinged monsters with surprised faces growing out of their bottoms, the Macclesfield Psalter slyly proffers one early fourteenth-century joke after another. It is also, incidentally, an important manuscript in the history of English book production, and this is a definitive scholarly edition. But don't let its academic significance get in the way of the exuberant artistic value of seeing the whole manuscript laid out in front of you, life-size, beautifully reproduced, as close as you can get to the real thing -- and with the advantage of being able to drink tea in its august presence, which the library doesn't allow. Lots of good ideas for border decoration and illuminated initials as well as colourful marginalia and grotesques, and written throughout in a fine, square gothic textura quadrata ... still, don't imagine that you could justify buying this beautiful boxed-and-beribboned clothbound monster as a mere calligraphy book. Only "acute facsimile addiction" could be any excuse. Which means that if you should happen upon any other calligraphy book containing pages from the Macclesfield psalter, get that; it is such a wonderful, crazy miscellany of improbable, Monty-Pythonesque, jolly drolleries. Meanwhile, add the Panayotova edition to your Christmas list and keep your fingers crossed.
Rohan Master, The, A Book of Hours (New York, 1973) The end of the fourteenth century is dominated by the Limbourg brothers who illuminated for the Duc de Berry (see above). Their beautifully mannered swan-necked aristocrats, delicate architectural detail, fine shading and subtle colouring are deservedly icons of the illuminator's art. BAM! – enter the Rohan Master. Vigorous, brush-marked, blending strenuous stylisation with startling naturalism, reeking of intense emotion and exalted vision, the work of this illuminator is extraordinarily original and gives a completely different world-view. Flick through the volume to get acclimatised and then go to Pl. 57 ('Lamentation of the Virgin'). And again, BAM! That was the sound of your medieval socks being knocked off.
Welch, Stuart Cary, et al., The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India (New York, 1987) When my mother and I still shared bookshelves, she bought a copy of this utter marvel, and I then had to go out and buy my own even though I could 'borrow hers'. It is a sublime volume of facsimile pages from the Kevorkian Album, also called the Emperor's Album – a masterpiece of seventeenth-century Indian Mughal miniature-painting and illuminated text (Arabic alphabet). Although it apparently has little to do with Western calligraphy, you can learn a great deal from the delicate, meticulous and joyful floral ornament, the imaginative use of outlining and pattern, and the astonishingly fine gold painted onto dark backgrounds to create glowing arabesques and delicate halos around the perfect, feather-light blooms which surround each immaculately laid-out panel. Stern geometry meets exquisite naturalism, they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after: it's a true book of wonders ... which is also useful as a calligraphy book, provided you are willing to translate techniques from Arabic letters to Roman.
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Brown, Michelle P., A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London, 1990) This was a godsend for my postgrad palaeography lessons and now serves as a reference calligraphy book. Right-hand pages bear a large, clear black-and-white photograph of a manuscript page illustrating the script in question; left-hand pages carry a detailed description, a transcription (useful for recognising strange letter-forms), and even notes here and there about how the scribe wrote it. There are historical hands in this volume which you didn't even guess existed. 'Insular cursive minuscule', anyone? (A very handsome, curly-italic looking early-medieval script.) 'Bastard Secretary'? (Much prettier than it sounds.) 'Merovingian Chancery Script'? (Really, truly, genuinely, a Merovingian Chancery spider fell into fermenting ink and crawled out and away to die, several times over.)
Knight, Stan, Historical Scripts: From Classical Times to the Renaissance (Delaware, 1998) Lots of big, clear black-and-white photographs from the original manuscripts to illustrate scripts through history. Useful, detailed analyses and notes on scribal technique; glossary of terms; bibliography. This, too, is a good solid helpful calligraphy book to have around. Desirable in its own right and a very good companion to Marc Drogin and/or Michelle Brown.
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The following are not strictly calligraphy books, but interesting and useful guides to the origins of language and the Roman alphabet which underlies Western calligraphy, as well as other alphabets with their own calligraphic traditions: Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic, Urdu etc.
Davies, Lyn, A Is For Ox: A Short History of the Alphabet (Salisbury, 2004) Not a calligraphy book really, but a good little book for anyone at all who's even remotely interested in language. It's an entertaining, informative read which gives the history of each alphabet letter in turn from its earliest days to the present. Helpful double-page illustrations of the various forms each letter has taken through time, and lots of fascinating snippets: did you know that the letter 'J' wasn't universally accepted until well into the eighteenth century? Not a heavily scholarly book, and no large colour plates, but soundly researched and written, pocket-sized (just) and fun to dip into.
NB I found A Is For Ox only on the UK Amazon site.
Deutscher, Guy, The Unfolding of Language (London, 2005) Let me say up-front that I am biased in favour of this book; a friend wrote it, and I provided several maps and illustrations. That aside, it's the most entertaining and engaging, wittiest scholarship you could ever hope to find on the ongoing evolution of language. It is illustrated; it breaks out into imaginary interviews, made-up languages, and the eternal importance of slang forms; it's written with great love for the subject and respect for the reader's likely attention span. Do you know that 'whelk' is related to 'wallet' and 'helicopter'? It is, you know. And ... oh look, there's that lovely news spoof again: "Clinton Sends Vowels to Former Yugoslavia". Excuse me while I re-read this book ...
Jackson, Donald, The Story of Writing (London, 1981) (Sorry, no link.) The good thing about this book is that by now it's probably only available very second-hand and therefore cheaply. It's a friendly, well-written, detailed history of writing, from the earliest days of symbol-systems in the Middle East through to fountain pens and machine text. It contains colour plates, diagrams and illustrations on every page, a useful index and occasional dry humour, and it's written with plenty of authority too.
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I do hope this calligraphy book-list has been useful to you. Thanks for reading -- happy browsing -- and if you did buy anything ... thanks again.
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